Archbishop Nicolas Thévenin becomes the nuncio to the 100th country to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See since the election of John Paul II.
Just one verse each day.
Pope Francis has appointed French Archbishop Nicolas Thévenin, who is already the nuncio to Egypt, as apostolic nuncio to the Sultanate of Oman. The Holy See Press Office made the announcement on May 22, 2023. The Holy See and the Sultanate had announced last February the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
This is the first time in the history of the Holy See’s diplomacy that a pope has appointed an apostolic nuncio to the Sultanate of Oman, a country located in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula. In 2023, Oman — which has Islam as its state religion and Islamic Sharia as the basis of its legal system — became the 184th state to formalize diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
On February 23, Rome promulgated a joint communiqué formalizing the establishment of full diplomatic relations and announcing the upcoming creation of an embassy of the Sultanate of Oman to the Holy See and an apostolic nunciature to the Sultanate of Oman.
The task of inaugurating these new relations fell to Archbishop Nicolas Thévenin, Apostolic Nuncio in Egypt. The French diplomat, who will turn 65 on June 5, has been the papal representative in Egypt and delegate to the Arab League since 2019.
The diplomat, originally from Saint-Dizier (in northeastern France), was ordained a priest in 1989 in the Saint-Martin community, before joining the diplomatic services of the Holy See in 1994. He then served as secretary or advisor in many nunciatures: India and Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as Lebanon, Cuba and Bulgaria. From 2005 to 2009, he served in the Secretariat of State in the Section for Relations with States.
In 2009, Archbishop Thévenin joined the Pontifical Household and was appointed to the college of 7 participating protonotaries apostolic, dispatching administrative acts. He worked alongside the prefect, who was specifically responsible for the organization of the pope’s public and private audiences. In January 2013, he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Guatemala before being sent to Egypt in 2019.
Archbishop Thévenin is one of three Frenchmen currently serving as apostolic nuncios, along with Archbishop Christophe Pierre in the United States and Archbishop Jean-Marie Speich in Slovenia.
Oman, a country known for its liberal approach to Islam
The Sultanate of Oman is a country located in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. It covers nearly 120,000 square miles and has a population of approximately 4.5 million, with a significant percentage of workers coming from other Middle Eastern countries, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan.
The current head of state is Sultan Haitham Ben Tariq, 68. He succeeded his cousin, Sultan Qaboos ibn Said, who ruled for nearly 50 years and died without issue on January 11, 2020.
The country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1971, after being a British protectorate for 80 years. Oman then experienced spectacular economic development, notably by investing in the exploitation of hydrocarbons and in tourism. The Basic Law of the Sultanate of Oman declares Islam to be the religion of the state, with Sharia law as the main source of national legislation. However, the country is known for its relatively liberal approach, and the law provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.
The local Catholic Church has 12 priests ministering in four parishes. It is attached to the Apostolic Vicariate of South Arabia, headed by Bishop Paolo Martinelli, whose jurisdiction also extends to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. The February memo said the Holy See hoped the establishment of full diplomatic relations would allow the Catholic Church in Oman, “through priests and nuns,” to “continue to contribute to the social welfare of the Sultanate.”
According to CIA statistics in 2020, the local Catholic community has nearly 140,000 members. Some 86% of the Omani population is Muslim, with 45% belonging to the Ibadite branch of Islam — present almost exclusively in that kingdom — 35% Sunni and 5% Shia. The sultanate also has a small evangelical community (1%) as well as a large Hindu community (5%), and a Buddhist community (1%).
A middle ground in regional conflicts
The plan to establish diplomatic relations was announced on November 4, 2022, the day after a telephone exchange between Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Hamad Al Busaidi and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States at the Secretariat of State.
The Holy See and Oman had grown closer in September 2017 during the release of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, an Indian Salesian kidnapped in March 2016 in Yemen. The rescue operation, made possible thanks to help provided by the Sultanate of Oman, was welcomed by the Holy See. Together with the Indian government, the Vatican had been trying for 18 months to free the priest, who was kidnapped during a deadly attack in Aden against a clinic run by nuns of the Missionaries of Charity.
Oman, with its central position between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has become a strategic place for diplomatic contacts regarding the wars in Yemen and in Syria.
Expansion of the Holy See’s diplomatic network
The Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 184 states today, compared to 84 in 1978 and 25 in 1950. The Sultanate of Oman is thus exactly the 100th State to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See since the election of John Paul II in 1978.
The countries that do not currently have diplomatic relations with the Holy See are Bhutan, Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, Comoros, Laos, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, North Korea, Tuvalu and Vietnam. In Brunei, the Comoros, Laos, and Somalia, the Holy See has apostolic delegates, and in Vietnam, a “pontifical representative.”
Some of these countries, moreover, have contacts with the Vatican in various forms. China is one, particularly for the appointment of bishops since the controversial September 2018 agreement.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the connection comes through interreligious dialogue. In 2018, the visit to the capital of Riyadh by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, then president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, was seen as a major diplomatic breakthrough and evidence of the Vatican’s attention to the development of religious freedom in the Arabian Gulf.
Last March, the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn, visited Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Islamic World League.